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Is the Bucs offense sputtering, or is this a new normal in Tampa Bay?

John Romano | The NFL’s top scoring team from 2019-21, the Bucs offense has just two TDs in two weeks. It could be injuries, or it could be a new conservative philosophy.
Should we get used to seeing more handoffs from Tom Brady to Leonard Fournette? The Bucs have had a clear emphasis on running the ball the first two weeks of 2022 with Fournette getting at least 20 carries in back-to-back games.
Should we get used to seeing more handoffs from Tom Brady to Leonard Fournette? The Bucs have had a clear emphasis on running the ball the first two weeks of 2022 with Fournette getting at least 20 carries in back-to-back games. [ TYLER KAUFMAN | AP ]
Published Sep. 24|Updated Sep. 24

TAMPA — In the case of the 2022 Tampa Bay offense, we have evidence. We have eyewitnesses corroborated with video, and we have a paper trail of irrefutable numbers.

We’re just a little wobbly on motive.

Have the Bucs turned down the volume on their party-all-the-time offense because their linemen and receivers are beat up, or is this an organizational change in philosophy under Todd Bowles?

The coaches and quarterback will admit to nothing. They talk in generalities about taking what the defense gives and having the flexibility to do whatever is necessary to win.

But they don’t deny what everyone is plainly seeing:

This has not been the same offense that led the NFL in scoring from 2019-21. At least not through the first two games of the season.

The Bucs have been held to 20 points or fewer in consecutive weeks for the first time since the first two games of the 2019 season. In other words, for the first time since Tom Brady became quarterback.

Now, this is not necessarily a cause for alarm. The Bucs, after all, are 2-0 with victories on the road against a pair of quality opponents. They have protected the ball, they have protected leads and, most importantly, they have protected the 45-year-old Brady.

After he attempted 1,329 passes in his first two seasons in Tampa Bay — not just the most in the NFL, but the most by any quarterback in back-to-back seasons since Matthew Stafford in 2012-13 — Brady has dialed it back dramatically this season. He is currently 22nd in the league in pass attempts.

So, again, is this a conscious effort to run the ball more? Are the Bucs purposefully using a ball-control, field-position offense that complements their stout defense? Or have the past two weeks been a matter of circumstance with Chris Godwin, Julio Jones, Donovan Smith and Ryan Jensen getting hurt?

Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and quarterback Tom Brady embrace before last Sunday's win in New Orleans. The Bucs also seem to be embracing a less flashy offense this season.
Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and quarterback Tom Brady embrace before last Sunday's win in New Orleans. The Bucs also seem to be embracing a less flashy offense this season. [ JONATHAN BACHMAN | AP ]

“It’s this year’s team right now. It’s where we’re at right now,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “That’s what we feel is the best thing to do to have the best chance to win these football games.

“Obviously with the injuries that we have, we can’t be what we were last year. But we’re not expecting to be. We expect to be the 2022 Buccaneers. We’ll see how it all turns out, but I like the direction we’re heading.”

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And what is that direction? From here, it looks like 1958.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Brady is still averaging 30.5 passes a game, even if that’s down substantially from the 43 attempts per game last year.

Basically, the Bucs look like they’re doing whatever they can to keep Brady standing upright while avoiding putting the defense in bad situations. That means no turnovers, no sacks, no quick three-and-outs because they were trying to push the ball downfield.

The Cowboys and Saints combined for 25 possessions against the Bucs the past two weeks. Every single one began on the opponent’s side of the field, and most were inside the 30.

In other words, the Bucs aren’t giving up any freebies.

Unlike recent seasons when they seemed obsessed with putting as many points on the scoreboard as possible, this version of the Bucs just wants to have more points than the other team.

If that means plodding instead of dazzling, then so be it.

“A lot of things change,” Brady said when asked about injuries to receivers. “You’ve just got to try to win the game however you can win it. Fortunately, our defense is playing great football and we’ll do the best we can do on offense.”

It’s possible that both scenarios are true for the Bucs — they have dialed back the offense because of injuries, but that was also part of their long-range planning.

There’s no reason to risk getting Brady hurt with 40-plus passes a game if it’s not necessary. And there’s no reason to take risks in order to score 31 points if you can still win with 21.

What we do not know is whether the Bucs can turn on the fireworks at a moment’s notice. If the defense falters, is this offense capable of scoring a couple of quick touchdowns in the fourth quarter?

Good question. At this point, they have only scored two offensive touchdowns in two games.

That’s not exactly comforting, but it’s hard to imagine a passing game with a healthy Brady, Jones, Godwin and Mike Evans not being able to move the ball if the situation dictates it.

For now, this is who the Bucs are:

A pedestrian offense with a perfect record.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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